INcase you’ve missed it, virtual worlds are fast becoming the go-to strategy for reaching kids online. Canadian toyco Ganz started it all with Webkinz.com and was quickly followed by Club Penguin. And now that book publishers are also getting into the game (see ‘Publishers push into web-toy territory’ on page 69), the number of kid-focused marketing firms and agencies adding ‘builder of virtual worlds’ to their list of client services shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Notably, Cincinnati, Ohio-based digital ad agency WonderGroup launched ToppsTown.com on behalf of trading card manufacturer Topps this past June, with the aim of re-engaging boys with the experience of trading sports cards. New York’s youth marketing agency The Geppetto Group is getting ready to bow a branded My Princess Academy world for girls three to six this month on behalf of consumer products company Almar Sales. And digital shop Fuel Industries in Ottawa, Canada is about 10 months into building a world for an L.A.-based kids entertainment client. ‘The number of calls we’re now receiving a month asking about getting into branded virtual worlds or the MMOG space is tenfold what it was in April,’ says Fuel CEO Mike Burns.
All three agencies are overseeing creative direction and content/asset creation for their clients, but WonderGroup and Fuel are actually managing the programming of the sites. WonderGroup VP of digital strategy Jeff Jones says there are nine programmers at his 75-staffer office. ‘If construction’s not in-house,’ he says, ‘things can get away from you quickly.’ Because WonderGroup had the capability on-site, it was able to get ToppsTown.com up and running in six months. Similarly, Fuel has built its own virtual world engine (dubbed SNAG internally because it helps attract and build consumer audiences) that can be set up and versioned to meet a specific brand’s requirements.
As with subscription-based sites that may not be set up solely for marketing purposes, the agencies say branded virtual worlds have to be constructed from the outset with their target audiences in mind, naturally paying attention to integrating all other marketing efforts such as in-store promos and calls to action seamlessly into the environment.
With ToppsTown, WonderGroup kept the boys audience top-of-mind and made sure it included activities to appeal to the demo’s current behavior patterns online. WonderGroup CEO Greg Livingston says his team identified a number of motivators and reasons why kids engage in online worlds, breaking users down into types such as: the nurturer (hello Webkinz fans); the collector, who only wants to amass rare virtual objects; the nester; the trader; the joiner and the gamer – all pretty self-explanatory. It then incorporated activities that would appeal to boy-centric types. Boys, for example, are not big on chatting or nurturing, so ToppsTown really doesn’t encompass those functions. But it does have robust trading and gaming applications, which are more in their wheelhouse.
Similarly, Geppetto’s My Princess Academy was built with an eye to accommodating the more limited motor and communication skills of three- to six-year-old girls. It was designed with the idea that mom would be nearby to help, and once the girls get set up with an avatar and enter a code found on the glittery My Princess Academy role-play products and accessories, they can get new items just by clicking on them – no drag-and-drop required. Also, there’s no chat function as girls on the younger end of the demo can’t read, and even the older ones are not really interested in peer-to-peer interaction at this stage, says account supervisor Emily Stern.
Another thing the marketers agree on is that companies have to commit to branded virtual worlds for the long haul; they’re not a short-term proposition and they require constant content churn to keep users coming back.
ToppsTown, for one, adds new content weekly. If a brand is not prepared to commit long-term resources to a virtual world, notes Fuel’s Burns, it runs the risk of alienating the community it has built. ‘People will get tired from a brand perspective if it’s not done well and they are just left hanging,’ he says. ‘You’re building a community, a group of users that has a public voice it can use to turn on a brand – you have to be mindful of what you’re building.’
When it comes to costs, virtual worlds don’t come cheap. Burns estimates that it takes a minimum of US$2.5 million to get one off the ground, assuming the advertiser is licensing an engine, and those funds will primarily be put towards asset creation. If there’s a social networking function that requires full-time monitoring, the cost goes up. In contrast, WonderGroup’s Livingston says a branded virtual world can be built for less, but not under six figures. It involves stripping the site down to include only the features that are critical to attracting the target, holding back on extraneous bells and whistles.
While it seems like a pricey brand-building venture, Livingston points out that traditional marketing tactics like TV advertising can cost just as much, if not more, with TV commercials often running in the US$300,000 range plus the media buy. Moreover, traditional marketing means are temporal. TV ads cycle in and out in a few weeks, whereas virtual worlds are up and running 24/7, and consumers are voluntarily choosing to join – meaning it’s possible to own an audience in terms of engagement and relevance.
With ToppsTown it took just two months, Livingston says, to double the number of registered users to more than 70,000. In August, 47,000 trades were initiated on the site, and kid users spent more than 73 million Topps Points outfitting locker rooms for their avatars. Additionally, very little traditional media, save print ads in Sports Illustrated and promo bursts printed on card packs, were used to drive traffic to the site.
But one has to wonder whether kids will get too much of a good thing and start suffering from virtual world fatigue as the crowd of subscription and branded sites continues to proliferate. According to Austin, Texas-based Virtual Worlds Management, there were 150 youth-oriented virtual worlds operating and/or in development as of late August, that’s up 50 from the company’s estimate just three months earlier in April. Geppetto’s Stern, for one, doesn’t believe it will happen. She agrees the cream will definitely rise to the top, but says the play pattern engendered by virtual worlds fits perfectly into the need for overseen exploration that characterizes this stage of childhood development. ‘Kids need to feel safe, but they also want to break out and be a bit naughty,’ she says. When they enter these sites, Stern explains, kids can go deep into another world and explore while still sitting comfortably at home in the safe confines of their bedrooms. ‘Virtual worlds tap into the nature of how kids are learning and growing,’ she says.